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College Football Preview 2023: 8. LSU Tigers

Jayden Daniels, LSU

8. LSU Tigers

Brian Kelly has rapidly built LSU back into a program to be reckoned with, but will they hold off Alabama for the division?

2022 Review
The Brian Kelly era in Baton Rouge got off to a heartbreaking start as a missed extra point was the difference in a Labor Day weekend loss to Florida State. Yet, Kelly and company quickly regrouped and the Tigers would win their next four games before a blowout loss at home to Tennessee. Again, the Tigers responded by beating Florida on the road and Ole Miss at home, setting up a matchup with Alabama that was a de-facto SEC West Championship Game. Entering the game as a two touchdown underdog at home, LSU looked like the better team throughout nearly the entire sixty minutes and into overtime. After scoring to make it a 31-30 game, Kelly made the gutsy decision to go for it and Jayden Daniels found Mason Taylor in the back of the end zone for the thrilling win. After beating Arkansas and UAB afterwards, a rough showing against Texas A&M put a damper on an otherwise highly successful season and robbed LSU of momentum going into the SEC Championship Game. They couldn't keep up with the eventual National Champion Georgia Bulldogs, which put them in the Citrus Bowl against a Purdue program that knew they were losing head coach Jeff Brohm. Needless to say, the Boilermakers didn't appear very focused and LSU had no issues running up the score, 63-7. Finishing with a 10-4 record and SEC West Title exceeded expectations for Brian Kelly in Year One, but now raises the stakes in 2023 as the Tigers look to defend their crown in one of college football's top divisions.

2023 Outlook
Offense: Jayden Daniels emerged from a crowded LSU quarterback room and was a revelation for LSU in 2022. His passing numbers were solid, as he completed 69% of his throws for 2,913 yards, but it was his dynamic running ability that really made the Tiger offense go. He opted to return this year, giving LSU a proven signal-caller who has shown he can break open games. Daniels will enter 2023 as one of the SEC's best and gives this team a significant advantage over some of the other top dogs in the conference.

It's important to note that Daniels is the clear-cut starter now, but backup Garrett Nussmeier has earned rave reviews from those around the program and looks like the quarterback of the future here. The son of former Alabama, Michigan, and Florida OC Doug, Garrett has been so impressive that former five-star prospect Walker Howard transferred out after just one season on campus.

At running back, expect the Tigers to lean on a committee approach, much the way they did in 2022. Although Daniels technically lead the team in rushing, junior Josh Williams was their most consistent weapon on the ground, with 532 yards on the year. He'll combine with two holdovers, Noah Cain and Armoni Goodwin, as well as newcomer Logan Diggs, who rejoins Kelly after several years at Notre Dame.

Also returning to the backfield is John Emery, who remains one of the most fascinating tailbacks in the SEC to me. Emery was a superstar recruit coming out of high school who looked ready to flourish in the collegiate ranks, but he simply has not lived up to expectations during his time in Baton Rouge. As he enters his senior season, Emery was away from the team throughout the spring and is a complete question mark. I still think he could contribute more than he has, but finding consistent carries in this offense remains the challenge.

Kayshon Boutte entered 2022 as the alpha in LSU's receiver room, but was quickly overshadowed by the meteoric rise of Malik Nabers. Nabers began his season with a pair of muffed punts in the FSU opener, but was an absolute weapon in their other 13 games, totaling 72 catches for 1,017 yards. He enters 2023 as the clear No. 1 for the Tigers and a potential Biletnikoff Award candidate, particularly now that Boutte has moved on. 

Alongside Nabers, Brian Thomas Jr. and Kyren Lacy have both proven to be solid complementary pieces and should give this team plenty of sizzle on the outside. Thomas in particular is a tough cover, a 6'4", 200-pounder with an insane catch radius. Add in talented newcomers Aaron Anderson, an Alabama transfer, and true freshman Shelton Sampson, the Tigers should have ample weapons for Daniels to toy around with.

Mason Taylor, the son of former Miami Dolphins legend Jason, forever etched himself in LSU glory with that two-point conversion last fall and the sophomore has a bright future ahead of him. He looked like a savvy veteran throughout his true freshman campaign and was a consistent weapon in the passing game who should only become more potent with snaps under his belt. Taylor will an outsized role at the position in 2023, as the Tigers lack any proven experience behind him.

After winning the Joe Moore Award as the nation's best offensive line during the history-defining 2019 campaign, it's been three shaky seasons for the Tiger O-Line. However, they seemed to find their rhythm down the stretch in 2022 and should be considered a strength this fall. Tackles Will Campbell and Emery Jones made history as the first true freshman to start at LT and RT in the same game in LSU history and both lock down starting spots in 2023. On the interior, center Charles Turner and guard Miles Frazier are proven commodities, while junior Garrett Dellinger should also factor into the rotation somewhere.

The LSU offense was a pleasant surprise a season ago and all indicators are pointing up this season. Daniels now has a year of SEC ball under his belt, the running back room is incredibly deep, Nabers and Taylor are back as pass-catchers, and the O-Line is strong. This should be one of the SEC's best this fall.

Defense: LSU sent a healthy collection of defenders to the NFL this spring, four in total, and yet it feels like this unit may end up improving in 2023. Why? Harold Perkins is one of the brightest young stars in college football, tackle Maason Smith is back from injury, and the Tigers added one of the top defensive transfers of the offseason in Oregon State's Omar Speights.

Smith bolsters an already impressive defensive line, as he was expected to play a leading role last season before a season-ending injury in the opener. The 6'6", 310-pounder has the looks of an NFL veteran, but seems to be just scratching the surface of what he can be as a defender. He'll form a terrifying combo with Mekhi Wingo, a reigning All-American on the interior, while senior Ovie Oghoufo arrives from Texas to strengthen the edges. Oghoufo started 20 games over his Texas career and flashed plenty of upside. He joined the program in the spring and should see starting snaps from the get-go.

Harold Perkins has the chance to finish his LSU career as one of the best linebackers in program history, a program that has produced a lot of great ones. As a freshman, he earned All-American honors after making 72 tackles in eight starts, along with 7.5 sacks. Even greater things are expected for his encore season, as he's been receiving rave reviews throughout most of the offseason.

Perkins will be joined by junior Greg Penn and Speights at linebacker, with Speights likely to come in and start right away at middle linebacker. The former Beaver left Corvallis as the program's all-time leading tackler after 308 tackles in 39 starts and should be able to adjust rather quickly to the physical nature of the SEC. Penn shouldn't be overshadowed, a player who has improved rapidly over the last two seasons and could breakout as a junior.

The LSU pass defense made major strides throughout 2022, but could be in store for a bit of a rebuilding campaign, as they were hit hard by losses over the offseason. Cornerback in particular feels like a concern after Jarrick Bernard-Converse and Mekhi Garner move on, with the Tigers likely to lean on a slew of transfers. Darian Chestnut comes over from Syracuse and is a proven piece at the Power Five level, while Southeastern Louisiana transfer Zy Alexander was an FCS All-American. There's also Texas A&M transplant Denver Harris, an extremely talented defender with off-the-field question marks. He was worth the risk for the Tigers, but it's anybody's guess what he'll be able to do this season.

Getting back Greg Brooks at strong safety is huge, a capable, reliable defender who had 66 tackles and two interceptions a year ago. He's likely to pair with Major Burns, who has seen a healthy dosage of action as a backup but should start now that Joe Foucha has graduated. Burns is a well-built defensive back and should be considered a breakout candidate.

Defensive coordinator Matt House should have been a Broyles Award finalist for his work with his LSU defense last fall. It was not simply not as talented as past Tiger teams we've seen over the last decade and yet was consistently strong, with the two notable exceptions being the Tennessee and Georgia games. After adding Speights and numerous corner transfers, there's reason to believe it will be even better this fall, with House likely to become a major name to watch in college football and NFL coaching circles.

Special Teams: Aside from a horrific opener, LSU got good special teams production throughout most of last season and the prognosis appears good once again in 2023. Kicker Damian Ramos looks to be growing into his own and punter Jay Bramblett, who followed Kelly and STC Brian Polian south, is a potential Ray Guy candidate. It will be interesting to see whether anyone emerges in the return game, as nobody was all that remarkable on either kick or punt returns last year.

Bottom Line
I've said for years that Brian Kelly's work with Notre Dame from 2017 on deserves significantly more national attention, but even I wasn't expecting him to have such an impressive debut last season. It wasn't just the wins, but the overall look and feel of the program, which had fallen into complete disarray in the later years of Ed Orgeron. Yet, for all the success, there is still plenty LSU has to work on and defending the SEC West is one of the toughest goals in college football. Returning so much star power on both sides of the ball helps, but LSU has to play Florida State once again in a neutral site contest, along with a brutal SEC West slate. That slate includes traveling to Tuscaloosa to match up with the Crimson Tide in a game that Nick Saban will have his team hungry for. I still believe this LSU program is good enough to be firmly entrenched in the College Football Playoff conversation, but there's so little room for error. Finding a way to only lose one game on the schedule feels like too much of an ask considering the circumstances. Yet, it never pays to count out Kelly or the "Bayou Bengals", who have their most complete roster since that dream 2019 campaign.

Program Profile
Coaching Staff
After a decade-plus at Notre Dame, Brian Kelly enters Year Two in Baton Rouge intent on leading the Tigers back to the College Football Playoff. Since a 4-8 2016 in South Bend, Kelly has been a model of consistency, winning at least ten games in each season since, including his debut campaign with LSU. He enters 2023 as the fourth winningest active FBS head coach, behind Nick Saban, Mack Brown, and Kirk Ferentz. At offensive coordinator, Mike Denbrock retains his role after a surprisingly strong first season with the Tigers. He worked under Kelly for years at Notre Dame, including a short stint in 2014 as OC, before spending 2017-2021 with Cincinnati. On the other side of the ball, Matt House is a rising name to watch in the football world who seems to have limitless potential. He's bounced between the NFL and collegiate ranks on countless occasions and is fresh off a stint as linebackers coach with the Kansas City Chiefs. Yet, it feels like his future lies in the college landscape and another impressive season should put him in line for potential head coaching vacancies.

Recruiting Breakdown
The Tigers will always be a force to be reckoned with on the recruiting trail, and Kelly and staff did a great job with their first full class, landing at 6 in the 247Sports Composite. Two five-stars and a whopping 16 four-stars dot the group, which is strong in the trenches. Tackles Lance Heard and D.J. Chester immediately bolster the offensive line, even with youngsters Will Campbell and Emery Jones locked in for the foreseeable future. Heard previously starred on the defensive side of the ball but after making the switch to offense, he's continued to grow and earned a five-star billing coming out of Monroe, Louisiana. Da'Shawn Womack and Jaxon Howard lead the Class along the defensive line and both were in during the spring to get acclimated to the program. Howard was also recruited as a tight end coming out of high school, even though his long-term future rests coming off the edge at defensive end. At the skill positions, the pair of receivers, Shelton Sampson and Jalen Brown, should bring plenty of explosiveness to Baton Rouge. Sampson is the big-bodied, traditional boundary receiver, while Brown is the future deep threat whose foot speed off the line is jaw-dropping.

2023 Schedule Analysis
LSU may have come out on top in a hard-fought battle against Florida State last fall, but the Seminoles will be looking for revenge on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend. LSU is the slight favorite as of today, but that line could move the closer we get to early September. After a slight reprieve against FCS foe Grambling, LSU goes on the road to Mississippi State to begin SEC play. It begins a difficult stretch that includes two straight road games, against Ole Miss and Missouri, and an Auburn team fresh off a bye. LSU's bye will come on October 28 and the timing sets up perfectly, as they travel to Tuscaloosa a week later. That rivalry remains the most crucial game on the SEC West schedule each year and has been very interesting as of late. After Alabama won every year from 2012-2018, LSU has won two of four and nearly came out on top in 2021, too. Things aren't a ton easier for LSU down the stretch opponent-wise, although they do get their final three all at home. Florida comes to town, then Georgia State, before LSU looks for their own vengeance on the final week of the year against Texas A&M. Overall, the schedule is brutal; Florida State and Alabama are legit National Title contenders, and the road games against both Mississippi schools are sneakily difficult. Yet, Kelly knew this was the case when he signed up, and should have the Tigers ready to go.

2023 X-Factor: Zy Alexander, CB
Despite the improvements LSU made in pass defense a season ago, there's some real concern among the secondary entering 2023. The Tigers lose both starters from last year and while they brought in five transfers as reinforcements, there's some inherent risk in doing so. The five they brought in add up to more talent, but how quickly can they adjust? It's likely the Tigers will lean particularly hard on the two most experienced corners brought in, Zy Alexander from Southeastern Louisiana and Darian "Duce" Chestnut from Syracuse, at least early on. Both are highly accomplished; Alexander made 29 starts with SE Louisiana and was an FCS All-American, while Chestnut made 24 starts and received All-ACC honors in 2021. But, there is a significant step up in competition for both, particularly with some of the passing offenses LSU faces on their schedule. Are they ready for the bright lights of the SEC, and to be leaders on this defense? I'm especially curious about Alexander, who feels like the type of player that will either make SEC schools regret passing on him coming out of high school, or fall down the depth chart behind some of the younger, higher-upside pieces. 

Team Projections
Projected Record: 10-2 (7-1 SEC)
Offensive MVP: QB Jayden Daniels
Defensive MVP: LB Harold Perkins
Impact Freshman: WR Shelton Sampson
Impact Transfer: LB Omar Speights
Breakout Player of the Year: DT Maason Smith

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